A shortage of hay in Alberta is putting livestock at risk of neglect this winter, animal welfare advocates say.
After record-breaking heat stunted the Prairie harvest last fall, Alberta livestock owners have been scrambling over the limited supply of hay.
As demand rises and prices surge, the Alberta SPCA is now fielding more complaints about starving livestock.
"The hay situation is at crisis levels," said Bev Wilson, founder of 5 Freedoms Ranch Rescue and Rehabilitation Society, an equine rescue in Strathcona County.
"I don't know how we are going to make it."
Wilson said her animals will not go hungry, but with her charity now in debt, she has no idea how she will make ends meet.
She used to pay around $50 for a round hay bale. She's now paying more than $200 per bale, increasing her weekly feed costs to $5,000.
Wilson has around 90 horses, donkeys and mules on her property. She takes in surrendered animals, works directly with the City of Edmonton to care for seized livestock. She also outbids meat buyers at auction, saving horses slated for slaughter.
She has been fundraising, and attempted to apply for drought relief but learned only producers and breeders are eligible.
The financial challenges come as rescue services are needed most, she said.
The number of emaciated animals up for auction this winter is concerning, she said.
"I feel torn," she said. "But what do we do? How can we afford to feed a couple more mouths?"
A bitter winter
The drought last summer on the Canadian Prairies was the worst in decades.
Bone-dry conditions left fields parched and damaged. Some farmers were forced to harvest early, in a bid to salvage what crop they had managed to grow.
The resulting feed shortage has been felt across Alberta, said SPCA spokesperson Dan Kobe.
Many livestock owners are struggling to feed their animals and the agency is fielding more complaints than on average this winter, Kobe said.
"It's been a busy winter for us," Kobe said. "Our officers report definitely seeing a lot of skinny animals when they are out visiting properties."
More than 560 animals, most cattle and other livestock animals, have been taken into protective custody since Dec 1.
The largest seizure was in December. Officers removed 187 emaciated cattle from a farm east of Edmonton. Another 20 were seized from a farm west of the city last month.
Last week, officers were called to investigate an acreage in the Bonnyville area, after 10 horses, which apparently starved to death, were discovered in the snow.
Kobe expects neglect cases will continue to come to light well into spring when forage begins to grow.
– Dan Kobe, Alberta SPCA
Even if food prices are expensive, even if it's hard to find, you can't let the animal starve.
"If an owner doesn't have enough feed right now, they're going to be in trouble over the next couple of months," Kobe said.
Struggling livestock owners should seek help from a veterinarian who may be able to help them safely ration their feed, he said.
"Even if food prices are expensive, even if it's hard to find, you can't let the animal starve," he said.
"If you don't have enough feed to get through the next two and a half months, then it's time to have a hard conversation about the number of animals you have."
Cindy Thomas, founder of Horse Heroes Alberta, in Evansburg, said she is getting worried over how she will feed the 70 rescue horses in her care.
Farmers who promised to sell her bales this winter instead took a higher price at auction, leaving her feed supply low all season, she said.
"People are taking advantage of the market and it's really not fair. Desperate people will pay whatever."
Thomas said she is asking donors for help and has offered to work for hay farmers this summer in exchange for a cheaper price on feed.
"It's the end of winter and now we're really stuck."
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Wallis Snowdon is a digital journalist with CBC Edmonton. Originally from New Brunswick, her journalism career has taken her from Nova Scotia to Fort McMurray. Share your stories with Wallis at email@example.com
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